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Perspective | Magazine

Elected officials need to remember who they’re really working for

In the federal government and here in Massachusetts, legislators seem to forget it’s the public they must answer to.

AP Photo/Globe Staff photo-illustration

Attorney General Jeff Sessions stonewalls the Senate Intelligence Committee in fealty to President Trump. Senate Republicans shield their remake of the American health care system from public view. Democratic legislative leaders in Massachusetts quietly hand themselves a pay raise and second-guess the pot legalization approved by voters.

After this run of impunity, it’s worth asking: Are public servants living up to their name?

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Lest any of them forget, they work for taxpayers. They were elected or appointed to serve the interests of country and state above all others. Even the president’s. When Sessions was sworn into office, it wasn’t a blood oath to the person who hired him. No, Sessions placed his left hand on a Bible and vowed to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic” and “bear true faith and allegiance to the same.”

His Senate testimony this month, though, suggested he was more committed to protecting Trump than helping Congress probe Russian interference in the 2016 election. Indeed, Sessions appeared so uninterested in the Russian cyberattack that he told Senator Angus King of Maine he hadn’t bothered to ask for a briefing about it. This is the chief law enforcement officer of the United States.

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Senate Republican leaders, meanwhile, apparently don’t think American voters deserve to know the fate of their health coverage. The Senate’s potentially seismic bill to supplant Obamacare — the House passed its own in May — has been cloaked in appalling secrecy. Not only is health care one-sixth of the American economy, we’re also talking about the well-being of millions of people.

Add to this the growing appetite in Washington for punishing leaks of government information to the press, despite whistleblower protections built in to surface corruption and wrongdoing. And not just under Trump. The Obama administration prosecuted three times as many cases under the Espionage Act as all prior administrations combined.

Even worse, many elected leaders, especially on the right, have used obscene gerrymandering and cynical voting laws to keep their mitts on power. It’s hard to imagine a greater desecration of the spirit of public service. Under this twisted scheme, voters don’t get to choose their leaders; leaders get to choose their voters.

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Closer to home, the Massachusetts House and Senate were, as of this writing, drafting competing versions of a bill to alter the terms of the marijuana measure sanctioned by 1.8 million voters last November. The House, for its part, has pushed for a much heavier tax on pot sales. Pro-marijuana voters could be forgiven for wondering: What part of our yes vote did you not understand?

Our state lawmakers have a history of dodging voters’ will. They ignored a 1998 public mandate to establish taxpayer-funded elections. For years they resisted a successful 2000 referendum to cut the state income tax rate to 5 percent — a 5.1 percent rate finally took effect in 2016. In fairness, ballot initiatives are often a crude method for setting public policy, but surely this habit of overriding the popular vote feels condescending to sizable portions of the state electorate.

One of the most egregious abuses of power in Massachusetts has been the outright hostility toward public records requests, which are a critical check on government power. Hiding behind weak laws and enforcement, public officials have for years scoffed at demands for documents or dreamed up outlandish price tags. In one infamous case, the Massachusetts State Police told a Taunton attorney it would cost $2.7 million to prepare the breath-alcohol test data he was seeking. (Other states had provided it for free.)

So what’s the antidote? Informed voting, certainly. But it will require more than that. Unseating imperious incumbents won’t bring lasting relief without vigorous, sustained attention from voters. This means public pressure beyond tweeting our outrage: assertive letters and phone calls to political leaders and their staffs; showing up to town hall meetings with hard questions, just like all those Tea Partiers and, lately, progressive voters have done; community organizing on behalf of causes and candidates who bring change.

Anger and frustration and fear must not give way to anarchic violence. The recent attack on a congressional baseball practice in Virginia was a sobering reminder of our pitched political moment.

It’s naive to think we’ll ever cleanse ourselves of secret deals and holier-than-thou politicians. And some discretion and privacy is obviously necessary when it comes to affairs of state. But political leaders have taken this license too far. If voters don’t demand more accountability, we’re headed for a dark place.

Like where? How about Russia, where President Vladimir Putin has shed any pretense of democratic leadership and opposition figures, demonstrators, and journalists operate at their peril. Or Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has brazenly pulled his ostensibly democratic country toward autocracy. So much so that when Erdogan visited Washington in May, his thuggish security detail evidently thought nothing of assaulting a group of protesters. (D.C. police later issued arrest warrants for 12 members of the detail.)

We’re still a long way from those repressive regimes. But it’s important that all of us — leaders and voters both — commit to the difficult, collaborative, and inclusive work that our political system demands of us. As the Russian-born writer Masha Gessen warned after Trump’s election, those who acquiesce to anti-democratic behavior “will be willfully ignoring the corrupting touch of autocracy.”

With power comes responsibility. Responsibility to uphold this grand experiment in freedom and representative government, born from the yoke of tyranny. We’ve come too far to mess it up now.

Scott Helman is a writer and editor at the Boston Globe. E-mail him at scott. helman@globe.com and find him on Twitter @swhelman
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